Milord Fillmorsheim from the Minsk Central Organization was coming to visit, so when Milord Fillmorsheim comes to visit, you shave. Naturally, I shave every morning. Shaving is how I preserve my reputation as a clean-cut citizen. Each morning, I clean my teeth and I cut my face with a razor. Every morning. But with Milord Fillmorsheim coming to dignify my doorsteps, I had the obligation to clean my teeth twice as sharply and, it follows, cut myself twice as deep.
As I began to shave, Petrov entered the small bathroom with such a sudden clamor that I threw lather every which way. Petrov had frightened me so you would think I had turned suddenly gray. But it was only shaving cream.
"What are you doing, dad?" Petrov asked.
"Cleaning shaving cream out of my hair," I told him.
"Why? Because Comrade Fillmorsheim is coming this day for a visit. That's why!"
"Why? I don't know why, exactly, but if Comrade Fillmorsheim comes for a visit, you wash shaving cream from your hair. That's why!"
"Why? Because Comrade Fillmorsheim is the head of the Central Organization. That's why!"
"Why? Because he thought the name 'The People's Confederation for Soviet Democracy and Entitlements' was both too long and too sloppy. That's why!"
"Why? Because he's an intellectual. That's why!"
"Why? Because when his father and Lenin marched on the University of Petrograd, they broke open a locker containing a number of certificates, and Comrade Fillmorsheim's father expropriated a number of blank documents for himself. That's why!"
"Why? Because a forward thinking person can, with the aid of dialectical assessment and the appropriate certificate, correctly see the future taking shape without the hocus-pocus of superstition. That's why!"
"Why? Because superstition is not only detrimental to the soviet system but also to any clear thinking people. That's why!"
"Why? Because if you rely on superstition you cannot build factories or homes or a decent kind of life. That's why!"
"Why? Because you become lazy and slovenly, rely on invisible things, which don't exist, end up never having enough to eat because you do not want to work, then you go hungry and feel drained of every decent concern. You begin having hallucinations and visitations. Quite possibly you develop a dysfunctional social disease which will wind you up in an institution where you will grow even more lethargic and get even less food, and refuse to shave or otherwise be an upstanding member of the economy. That's..."
"Why? Because when you are in an institution, Comrade Fillmorsheim will not come to your house to visit. That's why! Now don't you have something better to do than stand there and grill me with all the questions in the world? That's why!"
"Why? Because even though I have as many 'because' as you have 'whys,' what I don't have is time to dally in these subtle analyses. That's why!"
"Why? Because Comrade Fillmorsheim is coming to visit. That's why!"
"Why? Why? Why are you asking why? I don't know why, that's why. Why do you think my hair is turning gray even as we speak? Why? Why? Why?"
Petrov shrugged and left the room.
Freshly shaven, I sat in my favorite chair awaiting the arrival of Comrade Fillmorsheim. Typically, I enjoyed brief moments of relaxation, but with Comrade Fillmorsheim coming, I felt like an idler, a social parasite, and a commodities speculator. So I paced. This seemed much more productive. I walked back and forth across the floorboards until Comrade Fillmorsheim arrived.
His vehicle pulled up to my very doorstep, which meant, of course, that he had parked on top of the garden Maria had planted. He stepped from his car and, kicking snow out of his path, dirtied his boots good and well before entering our home. Maria and Petrov gathered in the front room to see the arrival of our distinguished guest. Marie and Petrov began sniffling in his direction and, once Comrade Fillmorsheim began speaking in all his distinguishably, they quietly snuck from the room.
"Did you see my government vehicle?"
"Yes," I said, "It's very nice."
"Exactly. It's a curse."
"It doesn't run well?"
"Of course it runs well. It runs excellently. It is the perfect machine. Soviet workers at a government plant on socialist specifications built it under a five year plan. What's not to run? It just stalls once in a while."
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Not to worry," Comrade Fillmorsheim said, "We'll fix it. But in the mean time, the heater doesn't work."
"No, which does not matter since we spend so much time outside the car pushing it through slush and snow anyway."
"Yes, but don't worry. We'll fix it. The real crime is that these vehicles are becoming more and more popular. The more successful the revolution is, the more people can afford these vehicles. Why, right now almost seven families in Minsk have an automobile."
"Kidding? I never kid. But do you know what so many automobiles mean?"
"No," I said, "What?"
"You are riding in a four wheeled bubble and you are cut off from people. You're not in communication with people. You are sitting in a traveling bubble, moving. How are you to know what's going on in the world? Where will you get your information? Are these machines going to help us raise a nation of idiots?"
"Perhaps this will not be such a problem when we are advanced enough to make the automobubbles run faster."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean," I swallowed, "Perhaps we will not feel so cut off from communications if we can make it from our house to the bread line within under seven hours."
"Possibly," he said reflectively, "But in the mean time, suppose you accidentally lose control of the steering wheel and nearly run someone over. Suppose you drive up an embankment and cause another pedestrian in a different car to swerve out of your way and wreck into a silo."
"A missile silo or a grain silo?"
"For purposes of analogy, it does not matter. Suppose you almost kill a citizen before you go galloping away. What then?"
"That would be terrible," I said.
"What we need," Comrade Fillmorsheim said as if deep in thought, "is a universal sign for..."
"Are those allowed?" I interrupted.
"Universal signs? Of course! But perhaps we should call them international indicators," he replied with a wink. "Okay, so as I was saying, what we need is ... an international indicator which professes recognition of our own stupidity."
"What do you mean," I asked. "We need a sign... an indicator that one person can use to tell another other person who is at some distance from him: "I'm sorry. I've done something stupid. I know I have. I apologize.' Apology is good for the heart, you know."
"I see," I said.
"Not yet you don't," Comrade Fillmorsheim smiled, "But watch this."
Comrade Fillmorsheim pressed his fingers together and forced his two pinkies to extend down. They whitened with the effort. He raised his thumbs, arched them toward his chest and stretched them, with difficulty, away from each other while straining to keep his palms together. He folded his ring fingers into his palms with a snap. Finally, he retracted his index fingers approximately half an inch and, as his knuckles surged, he looked at me with the joy of a child. The contortion of his hands looked as uncomfortable as it did ridiculous.
"There!" he said, "How's that?"
"It's marvelous," I said, "Simply marvelous. What is it?"
Comrade Fillmorsheim looked hurt, dropped his eyes for a moment, and then looked at me to say, "Our new universal indicator."
"Looks more like Trotsky," I said. "This is why you have come to visit me today, Comrade Fillmorsheim? To show me hand puppets of an infidel?"
"Trotsky! Where did you get such a ridiculous idea? And how dare you mention that puppets name in my presence."
"I'm sorry," I apologized, "I just wanted to... I just wanted..."
Comrade Fillmorsheim smiled. "Oh," he said, "So you want to get directly to the point. So. We'll get directly to the point. Comrade, we want you to give a speech."
"But, Comrade," I said, "I am not a speechifier."
"No. A speechifier you are not. What you are is a socialist citizen."
We were each silent while I waited for the logical connection to overwhelm my brain with its persuasiveness. I was almost there when Comrade Fillmorsheim broke my reverie.
"We need someone who can give a positive outlook to a few citizens in Minsk. So we thought of you."
The government thinking of me! Now there's a scary thought. Yet I was the perfect candidate. My tailor shop was not attracting customers. My wife Maria has the flu. My son does not have an adequate winter coat. We are hungry, and the heating system does not work properly. Bill collectors are at the door on a daily basis, and peddlers and beggars dress better and look healthier than do we. Who better to give a positive, up-lifting speech?
"I'll do it!" I shouted.
Well, for the next three weeks I fretted and worried about the speech I would give. Comrade Fillmorsheim suggested the speech be about the revolution and, although I was too young to have been in the Bolshevik Army, I sat at the kitchen table for three weeks allowing positive thought to ferment in my muddy skull. I held the pencil in eager anticipation of a series of brilliant thought. Occasionally I was distracted by counting the number of times I broke the tip of the pencil through too much pressure. I thought and thought and thought the theme through a series of subtle permutations, nuances, and possible discourses with the result that... Well, why should I try to fool you. On the morning the government vehicle arrived to be pushed to Minsk, I still had no idea what I was going to say.
So there I was on the podium. I had to wait through a series of laudatory remarks on various comrades and their participation in the glorious Revolution. The speakers said so many brilliant things, I could not hope to match the power of their rhetoric, the persuasiveness of their language, the beauty of their narratives. It took everything I had in me not to fall asleep. The Revolution was This. The Revolution was That. Just to listen, you could tell these people were speaking in capital letters.
As an honored guest, my seat was directly under the heating vent. This would have been ideal, except for the draft bearing down my neck. As I sat through the speakers who proceeded me, my back began to ache, my neck became stiff, my leg fell asleep, my arm grew numb, my head hurt from being sprayed. My ears, never too good to begin with, were killing me. Now I was in the perfect mood to deliver an up-lifting speech. I thought I had the speech, too. "Friends," I would begin, "things could be worse." They would applaud. Then I would conclude with my most up-lifting comment, "But they're not!"
Such would be my speech. Short and to the point. But perhaps, I thought, there was a rule against satire. I better not risk it. Satire, after all, was surely a sign... an indicator of decrepit capitalism. Capitalism was surely degrading, declining, delicious, deciduous, decimated, decidedly decadent, denubial, de-de-la-croupage, decopralated, defibrulated, derappenated... as someone speaking before me seemed to be saying repeatedly. These words having been taken, I decided to play it straight. I decided to stick to the facts.
As my name was being responded to with polite applause, I stood at the microphone and scanned the audience.
"Friends and comrades," I said, "I am here to speak about the Revolution." I could see the crowd was hanging on my every word. "Friends and comrades," I said, "I want to say the one thing I have not heard tonight. I want to say the one most important fact that no one seems to have taken the time to work into their speech. I want to say the one thing that you should remember as you leave here tonight, remember as you take up your daily affairs tomorrow, and remember as you contribute to the growth of our democratic system. Friends...." Every eye was glued to me. "Friends," I repeated. I noticed one member of the local builders union who was not paying attention. I eyed him until his neighbor poked him in the ribs. Now everyone was waiting for my words of wisdom, so words of wisdom I gave them: "We won!"
I said this with such sincerity as I threw my hands over my head that the convention applauded enthusiastically.
"We won!" I repeated with conviction, my hands still in the air. The applause grew louder.
"We won!" I shouted. The applause was deafening.
"We won!" I clasped my hands together. My ears really hurt now. I was overwhelmed by the response of the gathering. I wanted to clasp my hands together in a sign of... as an indicator of solidarity. Yet inasmuch as my hands were numb, my pinkies stretched beyond my folded ring finger and my thumb arched upward.
The applause stopped suddenly and the crowd gasped its way to silence.
"Trotsky!" someone yelled.
"Of all the nerve. Trotsky!" another added.
Before long, everyone was whispering or shouting Trotsky's name. Comrade Fillmorsheim approached me from behind and pulled me away from the podium. As he pushed me through the curtains, he whispered harshly, "I understand. I understand! It was a mistake. A mistake! But, comrade, this is going to severely damage your reputation. Severely! Not to worry, though," he said as two KGB agents rushed me toward the vehicle waiting at the back door, "We can fix it. We can fix anything!"
I was convinced Comrade Fillmorsheim was correct, but this did not comfort me. Nor was I comforted by the icy silence of my escorts during the seven hours trip home. In the car, I bounced up and down with the understanding of what a severely ruined reputation would mean. First, I would no longer be invited to speak at celebrations of the Revolution. Second, I would not have to submit myself to back strains and fatigue while alternatively freezing and shivering up on a podium. Third, I would not be compelled to ride a government vehicle in the middle of the night. Forth... Well, why go on.
We arrived at my home at 6 AM and the guards said, "Farewell, Comrade." At least they called me 'comrade.' Perhaps things were not so bad as they seemed. Later that morning, when explaining to Maria what had happened, I was incapable of making the offending gesture.
About the author:
G. David Schwartz is the author of A Jewish Appraisal of Dialogue, and coauthor, with Jacqueline Winston, of Parables In Black and White. Currently a volunteer at Drake Hospital in Cincinnati, Schwartz continues to write essays and fiction.